North Star Lounge sits on the corner of Catherine Street and N. 5th Avenue in the heart of Kerrytown, Ann Arbor. Having opened on Oct. 1, the lounge is the third project for Phillis Engelbert, the owner and co-founder of the Detroit Street Filling Station.
Engelbert said this project was “very collaborative” and credited the success of the opening to help from friends, Detroit Street Filling Station staff and the Ann Arbor community.
“There’s layers of teams and managers and everybody has a say-so in terms of how things go,” Engelbert said. “People’s needs are always put first.”
This collaborative working environment seeps through the four walls of the North Star Lounge, from the locally sourced artwork to the cacti room upstairs. The room was originally intended to be New Orleans-themed, Engelbert said, but a happy accident occurred when the local builder said he could cut out metal sheets of saguaro, a tree-like cactus species. From there, the rest of the space was filled by cacti and desert decor.
The rest of the lounge still carries some inspiration from New Orleans. After going on a research trip with artistic director Andrew Brown and club manager Ryan Shay, Engelbert described what she hoped to incorporate in her own lounge.
“You’re walking down the street — let’s say you’re on Frenchmen Street (in New Orleans) — and there’s club after club with their doors open, and you can hear the music coming out,” Engelbert said. “You wander in and they have a bar and some really good music and it’s chill and it’s casual. You don’t need a reservation and you don’t need a ticket. You just sort of get drawn in and you have a good time.”
Live music is a crucial aspect of Engelbert’s vision. She said she hopes to expose people to new music that they otherwise wouldn’t have sought out. But at the same, she also likes to bring in bands and musicians that people know and love, such as Jerry Perrine, Sarah D’Angelo Trio and the Pheretones. Whether it be live or in between sets, when customers can pick songs on the jukebox, music constantly flows out of the open doors and windows of the lounge. If a patron can’t find a seat upstairs, they can find additional seating downstairs by the bar and a TV, where they can watch a live stream of the music playing on the floor above.
If the ambiance of the lounge wasn’t enough to convince customers of its welcoming vibes, the bold words printed at the top of their website — “MUSIC. COMMUNITY. JOY.” — should do the job. Engelbert added that the lounge is also dedicated to supporting members of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Tuesday is LGBTQ+ night,” Engelbert said. “It’s fun to provide a space for the (LGBTQ+) community”.
Engelbert said creating community is an important part of the work she does. Even before she started running her own businesses, Engelbert said she always considered herself a community organizer in respect to her work in activism and with nonprofits. Now she carries that same model into her current projects.
“You don’t make decisions based on a profit motive,” Engelbert said. “You make decisions based on human needs and the health of the organization.”
In a previous interview with The Daily, Engelbert shared her goals of creating a space where those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction could feel welcome and supported. Engelbert also said she often hires those in recovery as well as formerly incarcerated individuals in the community to help support their endeavors.
“We work around their scheduling needs so that they can make it to enough meetings per week,” Engelbert said. “(We also) take into consideration what’s going to help them succeed overall, and then the pay structure is set up to pay staff as well as possible. So (my business) is not really necessarily a profit-making venture.”
Engelbert said a big part of the ambiance in the lounge is the abundance of plants in the lounge.
“I love plants,” Engelbert said. “Plants bring people joy. Plants purify a room. Plants are good for all of us. Therefore, we have a lot of plants, but a lot of people come because they love dining in a place filled with plants. People say, ‘What do you do with your advertising budget?’ and I say, ‘Well, I’ll buy plants’ and it definitely works.”
Jill Lada, an Ann Arbor resident who visited the lounge with her family, said she had been a longtime fan of Engelbert’s first restaurant, The Lunch Room — which closed its doors in 2020 — and wanted to support Engelbert’s new business venture.
“It’s a small space and it feels very intimate,” Lada said.
Lada said it helps that her best friend is a bartender here and appreciates how integrated the lounge has already become in the community.
Rackham graduate students Ann Marie Nicholson and Sara Murphy visited the lounge for the first time after hearing about it when someone left a flier on their door.
“It’s cute, it’s nice and I love that they have live music,” Nicholson said. “If you live more on the north side of campus, not having to walk all the way down to where some of the other bars are is really nice. So it’s definitely somewhere that I would recommend.”
Murphy added that while she usually doesn’t like bars, she liked the atmosphere of the Lounge.
“This is a place where you can sit and talk with your friends and just hang out,” Murphy said.
Daily News Contributor Emma Swanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.